Reading ‘The Shrinking Man’

I’m about halfway through Richard Matheson’s 1956 classic The Shrinking Man. I recognize he’s an important and diverse writer, creator of I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes,  Somewhere In Time, and Steel, and over a dozen Twilight Zone episodes. Ray Bradbury described him as “One of the most important writers of the twentieth century.” Clearly, he was a visionary, bristling with astounding ideas.

My first question is whether we were supposed to be at all sympathetic with the main character, Scott Carey, and my second is whether his behavior was acceptable or standard for the era. Because he’s an asshole.

I won’t sum up the novel, as I’m sure this has been done a couple hundred times already. I’m not a trained literary critic and don’t know the rites of formal analysis: I’m only reacting to this story.

It’s safe to say that Matheson, being of superior intellect and imagination, intentionally created an unlikable character in Scott Carey. Likely the entire book, besides being a fantastical adventure, is an illustration of toxic masculinity, which would place this cultural commentary quite a few decades ahead of its time. In recent years internet culture has coined “toxic masculinity” and the hashtag #masculinitysofragile to address this. Not having been alive in the ’50s, I don’t know how free men were to analyze and describe this condition. It’s my supposition they were quickly shot down by other men, suffering from this condition but appearing in far greater numbers—like a zombie movie.

What’s toxic masculinity? Shortly, it’s a socially imposed definition of manhood, where the definitions are injurious to the self and to society. It’s promoted with the intent of winning admiration, and failure to embody these ideals is met with hostility and assault. Examples include urinating on the floor, drinking booze to unsafe levels, driving large, noisy, dramatic-looking vehicles, and abusing people weaker than oneself without provocation. The ideal is that these represent dominance and potence, but in practice they make the individual appear unintelligent and fearful, relying on these props and poses to compensate for various inadequacies (because toxic masculinity equates the size of one’s penis with character, it is now a comical trope that someone with a large vehicle or a collection of firearms must be paying penance for the self-imposed crime of a small penis). The inability to critically examine oneself is part and parcel with toxic masculinity, so there is little chance for self improvement or growth, barring intervention.

Scott Carey exemplifies the toxic masculine ideal. His identity is wrapped up in props and poses rather than character, so when these accouterments are removed, there is nothing left to the man. He’s used to being tall, and his height gives him confidence and security. Losing this, he becomes ashamed of himself and then displaces that shame onto others, accusing them of thinking the worst of him.

This quarrelsome behavior causes him to lose his job: being the breadwinner was another source of pride for him, but this pride doesn’t fade even when it jeopardizes the family. Scott refuses to allow his wife, Louise, to get a job and earn money, instead waiting on various lotteries like begging money from his brother or hoping for a military loan. Even when the local media offers him considerable sums of money for publicity of his plight, he would rather see his family starve than embarrass himself by acknowledging his condition, such is his pride.

The shrinking necessarily bleeds over into his sex life. Scott notes that his libido is increasing (probably due to the lack of sex and the stigma against masturbation), yet he rejects physical intimacy with Louise. He sees himself as undesirable, accuses his wife of sharing this perception despite her repeated protestation, and then punishes her for her “judgment.” This paradoxical belligerence recurs frequently throughout Scott’s doings, lashing out at others in response to his self-hatred and delusional projection. He still desires his wife but holds himself back from her. Later he retrains his lust upon the family’s 16-year-old babysitter, blaming his increased libido and rationalizing that she’s closer to his size (he can’t acknowledge that she likely outstrips him in emotional development).

At every point, we see Scott has no coping mechanism to manage stress and misfortune, and that he has no sense of internal worth. Hating himself, he relies on physical and social stature for validation, but these are slowly whittled away and there is nothing left, no core of integrity or self-reliance.

While this makes a tense story, it doesn’t make it a fun one. The Shrinking Man is a looping GIF of a child riding his bike into a tree over and over. Scott bitterly insults himself, and when his wearied wife doesn’t do enough to assuage his self-injury, he storms out of the house in a huff, determined to feel like a real man: promptly he’s mugged by teens, an incident he refuses to share with his spouse. Any time Louise tries to show him affection, he rejects her and then accuses her of finding him unattractive.

He’s a pill. I don’t wish him the best. In fact, as a shrink-fetish fan, there are several times I wish he would’ve just shut the fuck up and availed himself of his wife, whether to crawl all over her like an exotic landscape or just to lie back and let her work on him. As soon as the story of his medical condition hits the news, “[o]bscene letters arrived from weirdly frustrated women”.

Can you imagine! Were there really women living in the ’50s, born in the first third of the 20th century, who were naturally and secretly attracted to tiny men? Women who didn’t have influences like Attack of the 50′ Woman or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but who simply felt a deep attachment to a dollhouse? Women who felt a certain stirring every time a newspaper ran an illustration of little elves around Christmastime? Women who putted a toy car around with their black patent leather pumps, growing moist without knowing why? And then they read a national story about a man who’s steadily reducing in size—this is their chance! Fantasy become reality! They must act, they must possess!

I can only imagine those letters. But if I were proportionally reduced in size, and if I received those letters, my reaction would be the diametric opposite of Scott’s. This comes as no surprise to anyone reading this blog post, by this point.

So yes, this story is a string of frustrations, watching this asshole cling to his idiot’s definition of masculinity, like a drowning victim hugging a 50-pound chunk of granite for flotation, watching these particularly lustrous pearls thrown before this choleric, fractious, ungrateful swine. Many times I wish he’d trip so the spider could transfuse him with toxin. Or let him languish beneath his vaunted box top, feverish and starving in the dark. Let him listen to his wife through the floorboards, calling out his name while she masturbates, exactly as he’s ashamed to do. Let the cat snap his neck or pierce his lung; let any small object dismount, descend, and catch him on the skull. I’m just tired of his voyeurism, his petulant outbursts, his rejection of anything pleasant and subsequent cursing of his fate.

I should write Louise Carey a letter.

4 thoughts on “Reading ‘The Shrinking Man’

  1. I had forgotten about the letters from the “weirdly” frustrated women. I only read it once, in high school back when I didn’t think anyone else was into size fantasy, let alone women who fantasized about small men. I’m sure at the time I dismissed this detail as a cruel joke on Matheson’s part, not appreciating his understanding of modern society.

    Was the “weirdly frustrated” characterization in Scott’s voice or that of the author?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.